N.Va. Catholic Youth Lend a Helping Hand


(Saturday, August 4, 2007 8:21 AM EDT)

Fixing roofs, painting and repairing homes might not seem like things teens would willingly choose to do during their summer break.

But that's what close to 500 local youths, who volunteered for WorkCamp this year, signed up for.

Started in 1989, WorkCamp is a week-long project organized by the Catholic diocese of Arlington that sends rising high school sophomores, juniors and seniors to underprivileged areas, where they help the local residents.

“I had heard a lot about it from friends who had gone in years past,” said participant Emma Jang, who is a member of St. Mary of Sorrows parish. “I had never heard anything negative about it, and I felt it was a good way to grow deeper in my faith.”

This year, the participating teens helped residents of Orange County downstate by fixing up their homes, installing handicapped ramps and windows, among other construction projects.

Thirty-three parishes took part in the 2007 WorkCamp during the last week of June, and approximately 800 people were involved.

“This last WorkCamp was phenomenal,” said Kevin Flores, assistant director for youth ministry at the Arlington diocese. “This was the biggest one yet.”

The participants arrived on a Saturday evening, and were divided into crews of five or six people (all from different parishes). The crews each had a site to work on from about 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m., Monday through Thursday.

Friday was “Celebration Day,” and residents were invited to have lunch with WorkCamp participants. A rally follows.

This year, teens worked at 84 sites, and each one had one or two contractors who volunteered for the week, lending their expertise to the participants.

“My experience was such an eye-opener to how other people live,” said participant Ellen Franson, who is a member of St. Ann parish. “I appreciate everything so much more.”

Not only did the participants spend the majority of the day working hard outside, their living conditions were rustic, as well.

Everyone slept in sleeping bags on the ground in the classrooms of either Orange County High School or Prospect Heights Middle School. Wake-up came at 6:30 each morning.

“The most difficult part [of WorkCamp] was waking up early,” said participant Annie Rowson, a member of St. Mary of Sorrows parish. “At first, it was hard to put a happy face on, but by the end of the week, it wasn't hard.”

In addition to working all day, participants celebrated Mass each morning and attended a three-hour program, featuring different guest speakers, each evening.

One aspect of the week the youth said they enjoyed most was helping the residents, and some crews formed a special bond with them.

“They were always willing to talk to us,” said participant Liz Gutman, a member a St. Ann parish, singling out one local resident in particular.

“She always let us into her house, and I'm glad to have met her,” Gutman said.

“The residents said a few things that just made people on the verge of crying,” Rowson said. “One said, ‘I know God is real because his angels were working on my house this week.'”

For most participants, WorkCamp was a life-changing experience.

“It definitely changed my view on life,” said Jack Vihstadt, a member of St. Ann parish. “It made me more aware of the whole community, especially around us in the Catholic Church.”

“When you are out there and you see you're helping people, you know you're making a difference,” Rowson said. “We're going and doing what we're supposed to do. It's the best feeling ever. If I could go to WorkCamp 10 times a year, I would.”

Kaitlin Hartnett contributed to this story.

Steve Vaccaro, Jake Palese and contractor Cindi Richter participate in one of the WorkCamp projects. Nearly 500 youths from the Catholic diocese of Arlington took part in the week-long program.

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